Chapter One: Out Of The Night
When the trees turned feathery green and brooks began to babble, Polo missed his mother. He had been missing her ever since he was a kitten, of course, but spring was especially sad because he had been born in the spring, and all the scents and sounds of the season reminded him of her.
"Can't you stop wriggling about for even a second?" asked Marco from his side of the velveteen basket. "You twist and turn, you snort and sniffle and make all those wretched noises in your sleep. What's the matter?"
"I miss our mother," said Polo. "I'd just like to see her again, that's all."
"She probably wouldn't recognize you," said Marco.
"I know," said Polo.
"Then why do you want to find her?"
"I just want to be near that soft-warm, dark-dank, furry-purry, milk-smelling something again," Polo said.
"Good luck," Marco told him. "There must be five thousand cats in this city."
Polo climbed out of the velveteen box and paced back and forth in front of the dining room windows. The kittens, Jumper and Spinner, were sprawled at either end of the sofa in the next room, and Marco and Polo could hear the soft footsteps of Mrs. Neal as she came downstairs to start the morning coffee.
"My goodness, Polo, do you want to go out so soon?" she asked. "Don't you even want your breakfast first?"
She came through the kitchen in her robe and slippers and unlocked the back door. Marco roused himself also and climbed from the basket. If Polo was going out into the early spring morning to have an adventure, then Marco had to go along. He couldn't bear the thought that his brother, who was usually the more timid of the two, might do something adventurous without him.
"You want to go too?" asked Mrs. Neal. "I don't know...Every time I let you cats out, you seem to disappear for a week or so. What you do and where you go is a mystery to me."
She opened the door and the cats went out -- first Polo, one paw hesitantly in front of the other, and then Marco, who stopped on the threshold to stretch. His hind legs went back, his front legs went forward, and as his belly sank lower and lower toward the floor, his rump went higher and higher. Finally Mrs. Neal put out one foot, gave him a nudge, and closed the door behind him.
"Now what?" asked Marco as they walked down the path to the back fence. "It's a big, wide world out here, Polo, and we don't even know where we were born. Under somebody's porch, I imagine."
"Maybe we'll find one of our brothers or sisters and they'll know where Mother is," said Polo.
"You don't understand," Marco said as the tabbies leaped up on the gate and over into the alley. "The world is big. The world is huge. Mother could have wandered across town and been adopted by a family there. She could have been living with someone who packed up and moved to Oklahoma! She -- "
"Stop!" cried Polo. "She's still around; I'm sure of it!" If anything had happened to their wonderful soft-warm, dark-dank, furry-purry, milk-smelling something, he didn't want to know it.
"Well, because of you, we left the house without breakfast, so we're not having any adventures till I've got something in my stomach," Marco told him. With that he set off down the alley in the direction of the Fishmonger Restaurant, where all the neighborhood cats gathered when they wanted a treat. All they had to do was to nose up the lids of the garbage cans and crawl down inside.
There were no other cats prowling around the garbage cans at this hour, however, as the most fragrant, fishy leftovers did not get thrown out till later in the day. But the tabbies were hungry, and one of the lids was ajar. So Polo, being the more nimble of the two, leaped up on the rim of the first can, nudged the lid over a few more inches, and peered down inside.
"What's on the menu?" asked his pudgier brother from the ground below.
"A bit of buttermilk pancake with maple syrup..." said Polo.
"Continue," said Marco.
"Biscuits and gravy..."
"Half a cheese omelet with pork sausage and a piece of bacon with home fries," Polo finished.
"I'll take some of that sausage," said Marco. "If you can mop up a little gravy with it, so much the better."
Polo disappeared down inside the garbage can and came up with a sausage in his mouth and gravy on his whiskers.
"It'll do," said Marco, as Polo dropped the morsel at his brother's feet and went back a second time to fetch his own breakfast.
They ate in silence for a while, snapping at the meat until they had bitten off a hunk. Then they chewed each bite with relish and sat licking their paws and rubbing the fur around their mouths. The sky was growing lighter, the air warmer, the birds became noisier still, and at last the sun peeped over the roofs of the houses across the alley.
"Now can we look for Mother?" Polo asked.
"Yes, but now my stomach's full and all I want to do is sleep," Marco told him. "We'll take a little nap first. What got you started on this, anyway?"
"I can smell her scent," said Polo. "The milk -- "
"It was the pancake," said Marco.
"No," said Polo. "I can smell the damp -- "
"It's probably going to rain," said his brother.
"No," said Polo. "The scent of warm skin -- "
"It's the sun coming out on the shingles. Let's head back down the alley to Murphy's garage and see if anyone there has seen her," Marco suggested. "Maybe one of the other cats knows our mother."
So they trotted back down the alley, tails in the air, until they came to Mr. Murphy's garage. In they went and up the narrow, dusty stairs to the floor above.
"You're late!" boomed a voice from out of the shadows. And there, in an old rocking chair, sat a yellow cat, one paw dangling over the side. He was a big cat, a banged-up cat, who had obviously been through a few fights in his life. He looked at the two tabby brothers with his large, yellow eyes and repeated, "You're late! The moon was full last night, so where were you?"
Ever since Marco and Polo had been admitted to the Club of Mysteries, Texas Jake had tried to ridicule Marco, because he was smart, and Polo, because he wasn't.
"Oh, Texas, do be kind!" said the beautiful calico cat named Carlotta, who was the friend of all but the true love of none. "I'm glad to see you, Marco. You too, Polo. We've all missed you, haven't we?" She looked around at Boots, the white cat with the brown paws, and Elvis, the sleek black cat with the green eyes. Boots just turned his head and looked the other way, while Elvis began to groom himself, licking between his claws with his long, pink tongue.
The truth was that none of the male cats was particularly eager to share the lovely Carlotta with anyone else, but because Marco and Polo had passed the test for membership, they were members of the club, like it or not.
When Carlotta sidled up to Marco, however, and rubbed noses, then walked over to lick Polo on the head, Texas Jake rose up to his full height on the rocker, his stiff leg notwithstanding, and growled.
"Just the same, Carlotta, we are a club, and a club must have rules!" he hissed. "This club is to meet on the first night of a full moon, and last night the tabbies were not here. What is required of cats who are not here?"
Boots and Elvis raised their heads and joined Texas in answer: "Solve another mystery."
"It's all my fault!" Polo said quickly. "My mind was on other things."
Texas Jake settled down in his chair and seemed to be enjoying himself now. "Ah! So his mind was on other things! Your mind is so small, Polo, what would such a mind be on? An acorn? A pea? A grain of sand?"
"Hush, Texas," said Carlotta. "What's the matter, Polo? What's troubling you?"
Polo looked around at the group of cats, who were all staring at him now. "I want to find my mother," he said. When the cats continued to stare, he added, "I know she must be around here somewhere."
"What's her name?" asked Boots.
"I don't know," said Polo.
"What does she look like?" asked Elvis.
"I don't know," said Polo.
"How many kittens were in your litter?" asked Carlotta.
"I don't know that, either," said Polo miserably.
Texas Jake -- Lord of the Loft, King of the Alley, Commander in Chief, and Cat Supreme -- scoffed. "Then how do you ever expect to find her, this mother of yours?" he jeered. "Perhaps your brother -- the cat who can reeeeeead -- should put an ad in the paper!"
But Carlotta snuggled up against Polo there on the floor of the loft. "We'll help you find her," she said. "Because if my kittens ever look for me, I hope someone will help them, too. Do you remember anything about your mother, Polo? What was she like?"
"She was soft and warm and dark and dank; she was furry and purry and smelled of milk," Polo told her.
"Hmmmm," said Carlotta, but her eyes were beginning to close as a beam of sunlight came through the open window at one end of the garage, falling on her head and paws. She slept. The other cats, Texas included, hopped down to share the sunbeam, stretching out on their backs or bellies, and purred with pleasure. As the sunlight moved across the floor, the cats moved with it. Finally, when it disappeared, they roused themselves and went to the Fishmonger for dinner.
There was time only for a short snack, however -- a bit of flounder and a shrimp or two -- for Marco had been right: Despite the sun during the day, rain was in the air. A chilly wind blew in from the west, and cold spring rain fell in a steady shower from the sky. The cats in the Club of Mysteries scampered back to the loft and prepared to bed down for the night.
"There still need to be rules," Texas Jake said when he had everyone's attention. "Marco and Polo will have to solve another mystery if they are to remain members in good standing."
Marco had never liked the bossy cat, and he liked him even less now. But he did not want the other cats to think he could not solve another of life's mysteries, so he said, "Okay, bring it on, Texas. What mystery do you have in mind?"
"I'll think about it," the big yellow cat replied, meaning he would give them the most difficult mystery pos-sible.
The rain fell, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, on the roof. It dropped, pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat, from the eaves onto the soft ground below. The cats -- all but Texas, who claimed the rocker as his throne -- looked about the loft for a place to settle down and began to groom themselves.
As the other club members dropped off to sleep, Marco stayed awake for some time. Now that Polo had brought it up, he, too, wondered about their mother. There were so many things -- awful things -- that could happen to a cat. She could have been in a fight with mangy old Steak Knife and his Over-the-Hill Gang at the dump. She could have been mauled by the huge neighborhood mastiff, Bertram the Bad; she could have been attacked by the river rats or taken to the pound.
The safest place in the world for a cat was probably back in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Neal, where Marco and Polo belonged, where the kittens Jumper and Spinner lived. Even up here in the loft, away from cars and trucks and dogs and rats, bad things could happen.
Cats would be cats, however, and the brothers liked to roam, yet deep down inside, where not even Polo could see, Marco had to admit that even he missed the soft-warm, dark-dank, furry-purry, milk-smelling something they called Mother. And he wondered whether, if they found her, they could take her home to live with them at the Neals' or keep her here in the loft and protect her always.
But finally Marco's eyes began to close and he, too, fell asleep.
Copyright © 2005 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor